Friday, October 30, 2009

Keeping up with the Joneses – the lawn edition

I call 8’ tall spiny weeds growing out of gravel, a Triffid.

Accordingly, shouldn’t I be able to forgo the rake, hoe, shovel and “paper waste bag” and step up to flame throwers? Really, I am menaced, lost in my yard, amid aggressively spiked plants that I never invited. And they are bigger than me. And I am a damn big fellow.

Actually I accept that in my semi suburban life, you have to gather up the biomass that falls or it will kill the chosen ground cover(cursed grass) and lead to soil runoff in the drainage system. I just wish, after participating in all this toil, that some of this vast urban acreage could be devoted to something productive.

I hate that the standard paper bag I am supposed to fill is boldly labeled “yard waste”. Words are power. Words define our perception of reality. Orwell wasn’t talking out his hat, we are our language. It isn’t waste. It is potent fertilizer. It is potential biofuel(if you swing that way—I don’t, I am waiting for the bon voyage car party!). It is a valuable commodity. If the produce in my grocery store was from close by, that “waste” would directly translate into the food I was buying. When I haul those sacks out to the road, I am just like the ant hauling a lump of sugar back to the colony. Waste, wtf?

If we want to at least slowly change our paradigm, change how we view value, wealth, sustainability, food, commerce, one of the steps we need to take is a basic rethinking of stuff. Plastic, glass and paper are all pretty nifty to recycle, but it is energy intensive to do so, and we do it to make more throwaway products. the goal is to consume less, not gorge and recycle the refuse to extend the party. All this urban excess biomass, though, is actually almost ready to be energy. Stack it up, let it break down a little and then dump it on your field. Badabing, you’ve transformed your “garbage” into tomorrow’s food. On my street, in the crook between street and curb, where moisture accumulates, leaves turn to sumptuous soil in the same season. To reword that, leaves can turn into the best tasting food you’ve ever set your lips around.

Just the same, don’t get me started about lawns. Is this a social project to keep husbands out of trouble on the weekends? I could grow moss, which doesn’t need cutting or gathering, or I could grow something useful: pretty bushes, raspberries, a corn crop. But grass? Even for those dreaming of summer leisure, compare stepping into grass with stepping into cool spongy moss. What is with this whole grass thing?

And I can’t let it go, can’t forget about it, or hide from it. My neighbours pristinely manicured lawns glare at me, the bylaw people lurk, waiting to sucker punch me in the kidneys. I’ve never had such a fish-tank feeling until living in a suburb type development and worrying about the lawn. Would a pumpkin patch really bother them? Instead, it is, “are those your leaves clogging the gutter?” No, No, I have the pulled muscles and blisters to show I raked all I could. And I get the sly approach, where a neighbour offers to loan me an implement for lawn care. Frig, I'm glad to know I am cared for.

Suppose(hypothetically, doncha know) I create an agricultural garden one year. I know this is useful because I end up with more produce than I know what to do with. I am up to my armpits in zucchini, I am drowning in tomatoes. I kill the entire vampire entertainment industry with my garlic. I have weird Technicolor squash coming up that I don’t even know how to approach. The next year, in a neo-conservative funk, I say screw it, I don't want to find neighbours to give food to, who eye me warily. If only I had learned about preserving food!. One year fallow, and I have a forest of triffids in my now, happy, healthy soil and I have to hack them down and bag them up for whatever the city does with them. Crap, I wonder, if one 24 square foot plot makes 200lbs of biomass when I ignore it and it weeds up(multiply that by 36 for my stupidly industrious yard) how much energy are we talking about in a city(food or fuel)?


  1. Yes, the power of words. Leaves and grass are "yard waste" but radioactive chunks of uranium and plutonium are "spent nuclear fuel."

  2. Continuing that thought (now that I've had coffee) this is an issue I raised a few times as a city planner. Never too forcefully, as it wasn't a huge priority, so I'm not surprised it didn't go anywhere but it did come up.

    The way it works now is:

    (1) you put fertilizers on your lawn to help it grow.

    (2) It grows and so you have to cut it.

    (3) The cuttings go into a bag and are taken away, along with your non-recyclable garbage, in a fossil-fuel-burning truck to a large municipal composting facility.

    (4) The composting happens. In doing so your yard waste is mixed in and composted with everyone's kitchen/"wet" garbage, which is anything that doesn't go in the "dry" (recyclable) garbage, which means it's got all kinds of stuff that probably shouldn't be composted. (e.g. used batteries don't go into the recycling, according to the list, so most people by default put them in the "wet" waste. Yeah.) It can't be recycled but it shouldn't be composted so can't wins over shouldn't.

    (5) Next spring, the recycling facility sells compost to homeowners to put on their lawns as fertilizer. The homeonwers come in their cars, buy bags of compost, and drive them back home. Wash, rinse, marvel at the foolishness of it, repeat.

    The waste (and now I'm talking actual waste, not just Orwellian use of the word) is clear. Why not just compost your yard waste and kitchen scraps at home?

    Answer, or "answer": It smells and the neighbours don't like it. We're back to The Monsters On Maple Street. In fact, you can compost without causing any nuisance odours IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING--I had a vermicompost in my kitchen on the Plateau and no problem--but this is predicated on everyone making the basic effort to know what they're doing. It's a collective action problem.

  3. I took a little walk through the city's website, trying to figure out where all those leaves and grass go. it turns out they go to Energy Ottawa's landfill-gas-to-electrical-energy project and the Plasco plasma gasification pilot project.

    I'm afraid i don't know enough to have any sense about how effective a use of urban biomass this is, though it is a damn sight better than simply tossing it in the landfill(that's another hinky kind of word)

    The amount of biomass my front and back yard generate is far too much for me to keep for personal use. we keep a tiny fraction of the number of bags we fill